'You Learn From That': Newsom Admits Making Mistakes, But Says That Hardly Justifies Recall Effort

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Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 10, while visiting a mobile COVID-19 vaccination center in South Gate, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he has made mistakes over the past year as the state faced an unprecedented health crisis, but believes the recall effort against him has little to do with his handling of the pandemic.

"This thing got started before the pandemic," he told KQED in an exclusive interview Friday. "Look at the petition that's out on the streets."

Newsom, who has been reticent to directly address the push to unseat him, said the recall petition takes aim at his broader progressive policy agenda.

"It's about immigration. It's about our health care policies. It's about our criminal justice reform. It's about the diversity of the state. It's about our clean air, clean water programs, meeting our environmental strategies. So they were crystal clear what this is about," he said.

Backers of the recall push say they have well over the 1.5 million valid signatures that are needed to put the question before voters.

It’s an effort that picked up steam this winter, as coronavirus cases spiked in California, keeping schools and businesses shuttered to the frustration of millions of residents, and after Newsom was caught having dinner at the high-end French Laundry restaurant in Napa, contrary to his own health advice.

Newsom said "of course" he regrets attending that dinner.

"That's those things you can never get back. And, you know, I owned up to that. And no one hid it from that. And that was a mistake. Crystal clear," he said.

But the governor, who also faced criticism over the state's slow vaccine rollout earlier this year, said there are other, more substantive lessons he's learned in leading the state's fight against the pandemic.

For one, he said the state could have done a better job educating and communicating to the public as state restrictions changed throughout the past year.

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And making sure California’s neediest and most hard-hit residents got the COVID-19 vaccine first, he said, should have been the priority all along.

To that end, Newsom recently announced California would set aside 40% of all vaccines for people in the most vulnerable communities.

"In many respects, we could have gone a little earlier with this overlay, and that's something in hindsight you consider and you reflect on at the same time. I said in the speech, you learn from that, you move forward," he said.

Newsom on Friday also rejected calls by Bay Area leaders to rethink the formula the state is using to identify those vulnerable areas, which has resulted in most of the reserved doses going to Southern California.

As for local politicians' request to change things?

"No, we're committed to the 40% overlay because it's the right thing to do, the right thing to do," Newsom said. "You've got to look at the disease burden. It's been overwhelming in the lower quartile. It's been overwhelming in communities of color and underserved communities. And so we have a moral obligation."

He said the Bay Area is still getting the same number of vaccine doses as before the change, so nothing is being taken away.

The biggest challenge, Newsom said, remains vaccine supply, which he expects will increase dramatically in the next six weeks, especially in light of President Biden's announcement Thursday that there will be enough doses available for all U.S. adults by May.

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"I think that should give everybody some confidence, some hope that there's a bright light at the end of this tunnel," Newsom said.

The governor said the state now needs to find people where they are — particularly those in hard-to-reach communities.

He acknowledged that mass vaccination sites in cities like Oakland aren't accessible to everyone, both in terms of physical access and having to sign up for the appointments online.

"[With] mass vaccination sites, issues of access to tools of technology, the ability to navigate the internet, get on the bike, turn out and or even navigate the streets and get into a car. You're right — we need to supplement these efforts," he said.

"It's a yes and — mass vaccination sites and more culturally competent in language, door-to door efforts in neighborhoods, diverse communities," he added.

On the issue of school reopenings, Newsom said that about 9,000 of the state's roughly 11,000 schools are either open now or have a "firm date" to reopen, and that the billions of dollars in state and federal aid recently approved should help ensure that schools can offer summer programs and other supplemental learning to make up for lost time.

Asked if he's received the vaccine yet, Newsom said he won’t get it until it’s his turn as a healthy adult under 65 years old.